If you want to be a writer, you need to read constantly, right? I mean, this is what we’ve all been told, repeatedly. So, when we’re asked to provide a list of reading recommendations for learning to write fight scenes we turn out a list of TV and films. Why?
The unpleasant truth is: ultimately, learning to write is something you need to learn for yourself. You need to go out, and write. Usually, you can learn from reading other writers, but when it comes to fight scenes, this doesn’t quite work.
The reason we recommend so few literary sources, when suggesting you look for good fight scenes isn’t because there aren’t any well written examples, it’s because there’s very few you can actually learn from, at an introductory level.
In writing, you need a concrete vision of what you’re describing. The reader creates this for themselves. But, when you’re standing on the other side, trying to write a fight scene, you can’t rely on the image you’ve put together if you don’t have a solid grasp of how combat works.
This isn’t something you can fake with short sentences or jumbled perceptions. If you don’t know what’s happening in a scene, your readers won’t. The best you can hope to do is trick your reader into thinking they know what they’re reading. (This is also why we tend to load our answers with a lot of background information. It’s an attempt to give you the tools to understand what you’re asking about.)
So, we recommend film and TV.
When we’re recommending films, we tend to be fairly picky, the material itself doesn’t have to be good, though, that is a perk, but the cinematography has to be clear and easy to follow. This is part of why we won’t recommend The Bourne Supremacy or Ultimatum. While the fights are actually quite good, everything is shot in a shakycam style that makes it really difficult to actually follow the fights.
It’s also why we’ll recommend (arguably) bad films, like Mortal Combat (1995). The martial arts are pretty good, and the cinematography is very clear. You’re never at a loss to follow what’s happening on screen.
You’ll always have a concrete grasp of what’s going on, and you can use that to start using that to work on your grasp how combat works.
As a writer, film and TV are your still life. You can study them over and over. You can write out what you see, and then check it against the original. You can subject your friends to it, and ask them to verify what you’ve written. In short, you can tell if you’ve gotten it right.
You will see things in film that you almost never see in print. This can include physical reactions to violence that a writer without a combat background won’t think to include.
This is the world we live in; it’s a massive cascading wave of cause and effect splattering out in all directions. As a writer you need to relate the major effects to your reader, but the minor details are what sell the scene. Use them with moderation and they’ll add authenticity to your work.
You can still pick up some writing advice from watching films, and we do recommend some for that, but when it comes to fight scenes, you’ll probably learn more from film.